Chet Edwards: The Veep Who Wasn't

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Rod Aydelotte / AP

Representative Edwards talks about being vetted as a vice-presidential candidate in his backyard in Waco, Texas, on Aug. 22

Correction appended August 27, 2008.

Just weeks ago, 10 lawyers from Barack Obama's vice-presidential vetting team were poring over Chet Edwards' old Visa bills, scouring his speeches from 25 years ago and checking to see whether his two pre-teen sons had ever posted anything on YouTube. Those were good days.

But instead of being the man accepting the vice-presidential nomination tonight, Edwards will be just another superdelegate on the convention floor, watching Joe Biden take the spotlight as Obama's running mate.

It is a measure of what a near-miss means in politics that, instead of getting the VIP treatment in downtown Denver, the Texas Congressman is staying 12 miles away at a Red Lion Hotel in Aurora, navigating the city's light-rail system and sounding like a supporting-actor nominee who came up short on Oscar night. "I don't regret a second of it," says the stealth candidate who made it all the way to the final round of consideration for the second spot on the Democratic ticket.

Edwards' was not a name that came up often as the pundits were handicapping Obama's potential vice-presidential picks — or one that is known much beyond Capitol Hill or the central Texas district that he has represented for nine terms. But as Edwards was driving between Waco and Dallas on June 30, he picked up his cell phone and was startled to discover Obama on the other end of the line. Obama asked if Edwards would be willing to submit to vetting for the second spot on the ticket. Then he warned Edwards, "It's a very intrusive process."

It turned out to be all that and more. At one point, the vetters demanded to know about a $38,000 charge from an old Visa bill, and Edwards drew a blank. (It turned out to be a car.) But campaign officials say Edwards ended up being one of a handful of people who underwent the full screening to become one of six finalists culled from an initial list of about 20.

And of the people on that list, no one was more discreet. According to vetter and former Clinton Administration Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder, Edwards was "scrupulous — I mean, scrupulous — in following the directions the campaign gave him." Chief among those directions, of course, was not to let anyone know he was a candidate. So secretive was the process that the lawyers doing the vetting for one candidate had no idea who else was under consideration — nor did the candidates themselves, except through speculation in the media.

As a House member from a red state that Obama has no chance of winning, Edwards knew he was a long shot — "waaay outside the box," as he puts it. Not since Walter Mondale picked Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 has a sitting House member been on a major-party ticket, and before that you have to go all the way back to Barry Goldwater's 1964 running mate, William Miller. That both tickets lost in landslides is hardly an incentive to try again.

But Edwards, 56, had a few things going for him. For one thing, there would be the message value of choosing George W. Bush's own Congressman (his district includes Crawford, which has voted for Edwards over his GOP opponent in each of the last two elections), as well as someone who has beaten repeated efforts by Texas Republicans to redistrict him into oblivion. (Six of his Democratic House colleagues didn't fare so well in the Tom DeLay–driven reapportionment wars.) Edwards also has a proven appeal with rural whites and a strong record on military issues. He represented Fort Hood until 2003 and is chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that handles veterans' affairs and military construction.

What's more, Edwards is well respected by his House colleagues, and has a powerful patron in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. She had been promoting Edwards publicly, though no one took that very seriously until late last week, a day before the Veep choice was announced, when the media finally picked up word that Edwards had been vetted.

There were little ironies as the process wore on, which may or may not have had an impact on Edwards' fate. On the day he had his first face-to-face meeting with the vetters, former Texas Senator Phil Gramm was in the news for having declared the bad economy to be a "mental recession," and economically stressed Americans to be a "nation of whiners." That provided a secret measure of satisfaction to Edwards, who had run for Congress in 1978 against his old Texas A&M economics professor and come within 200 votes of making the runoff. There was also the matter of another politician named Edwards in the news. That probably didn't help.

In the end, it was not to be. His life was upended, Edwards says, and his only real reward is a prime-time speaking slot on Wednesday night. "But I come out of this experience with tremendous respect for Barack's integrity and his values and his personal decency," says Edwards. Still, he wouldn't mind a nicer hotel.

The original version of this story incorrectly stated that Chet Edwards represented Fort Hood, Texas. He did until 2003.